So I started writing about this, and all the background and the side issues and everything, and somehow just didn't stop. This is going to have to be told in instalments, and it's probably only of interest to me, but hey, that's the self-publishing revolution for you.
Okay, a bit of background first: I went to a private all-girls secondary school (if you google for 'girls school Loughborough' it should be the top hit). When I was there it had about 550 pupils, and was sending about 10 people a year to Oxford and Cambridge. It did well in the league tables: the headmistress told us so at great length every Prizegiving, almost always prefaced by a lie about how obviously league tables weren't the really important thing. (We knew that was a lie; if people looked as though they were going to fail a GCSE or A-Level then they'd be withdrawn from the exam so as not to damage the results.)
First mention of Oxford
I think it was not long before GCSEs that my English teacher, Miss W., said I should go to Oxford to do English. Well, I loved English, and I knew (vaguely, through the memestream) that Oxford and Cambridge were good, so I took it as a compliment. I don't remember having any strong feelings about it. I loved reading books and I loved writing about them, and I knew I'd go to university (because That's What You Did), and Oxford was a university, so that was all right then.
A-Levels: a bit of a saga
Doing English at A-Level had been a given for as long as I'd known about A-Levels, but the other two subjects were a bit of a problem. I think in an ideal world there would have been twice as much time for lessons in the day (and half as much time for having to avoid people and all the other things one has to do when surrounded by bitchy teenage girls), and I'd've been able to do all the subjects I did at GCSE (except Chemistry, which was rubbish), plus Latin which for some reason I hadn't done at GCSE (though I did do Ancient Greek). Anyway, in the end I settled for English, Maths and Economics; I think I had some kind of idea that Economics was essays (which I liked) about Maths (which I liked), so would be interesting.
After 3 weeks of doing Economics I knew that I wasn't even slightly interested in most of it, and begged to be allowed to change subjects. I wanted to change from Economics to Music, because I still enjoyed Maths (well, the pure bits), but couldn't do that because they were on the same "line" (GCSE and A-Level subjects were split into bands by some mystical process, and you couldn't do more than one from the same band -- I think it was to do with timetabling). So I asked if I could drop both Economics and Maths, and switch to Music and French instead. The Head was aghast. "Nobody's ever changed two A-Level subjects before!" "Mrs G. did," I said. (Mrs G. was my A-Level English teacher.) "She changed all three A-Level subjects, from three sciences to English, French and History." "You'll have to work very very hard to catch up," said the Head, but -- to cut a long story short -- she eventually agreed. (It was a bit harder talking my French teacher round, as she knew I'd spent two years messing about in GCSE French, but I promised her that I had turned over a new leaf; I'm fairly sure I even said that it was giving up French that had made me realise how much I did want to carry on studying it, and I'd take it more seriously now I knew that. I was that kind of child.)
English A-Level: the best thing since sliced bread
English A-Level was probably one of the best things in those two years of my life. Mrs G. was inspirational (she's another whole story in herself) and encouraged me to start reading around, reading criticism, reading everything. I loved all the books we were studying (Hamlet, Persuasion, Waiting for Godot, Donne's love poetry, the Wife of Bath's Prologue & Tale, The Whitsun Weddings, and Toni Morrison's Beloved) and even started reading literary criticism (I was lucky enough to have access to a proper university library, thanks to my dad). I remember one of the other girls in the class telling me that it was "cheating" to read that sort of thing; I remember my parents telling me that it absolutely wasn't cheating, it was what you did at university. I loved pretty much every bit of the course; I wrote fifteen-page essays in my best handwriting (no word-processing allowed in those days!) and got good marks for nearly all of them. The idea of doing English at university sounded fantastic.
(As an aside, I should point out that the idea of university sounded pretty fantastic anyway, because you were allowed to go out! You were allowed to go and meet people! I reckoned I might even be able to meet girls, because apparently there were lesbians at university!)
Thinking about Oxford
Somewhere along the line, "Oxford" solidified from a word and a vague concept into a real prospect, and the group of people who were applying for "Oxbridge" developed as a distinct group in the sixth form -- not a group of friends, though some of us were, but a group who were marked in some way. There was me (English), Jenny (History), Vicky (Physics), Debbie (Chemistry), Liz (History), Sarah P (Biology, I think) and Becca (Geography) all going for Oxford, and then Amanda (Physics), Helen (History), Sophie (Maths), Sarah B (can't remember her subject) and one other who I can't remember going for Cambridge. We all had extra Oxbridge tuition; I've lost track of the number of people who've told me that that was "cheating", and that I shouldn't've got in if I couldn't do it "on my own" -- as if they hadn't had any teaching at all! (I've more or less got over that, but it still makes me defensive in the back of my mind; that, and people telling me that I "cheated" by going to a private school in the first place. Another topic for another post, possibly, when I'm in a mood where I can bear the inevitable flamewar.)
Oxbridge tuition: the best thing since the best thing since sliced bread
So what was that extra tuition? Well, at the end of Lower Sixth, before the summer holidays, Mrs G. suggested four authors/topics to go and read up for the Oxford entrance exam: T. S. Eliot; the Brontës; Shakespeare's tragedies; and one other that I can't remember. Then, she told me, next term, I'd have a few one-to-one lessons with her to talk about what I'd read and learned. (Yes, that was something I was looking forward to a lot; but that's another story.) I spent the summer in a kind of literary heaven, reading and thinking and reading and writing and reading and reading and reading. I fell in love with King Lear (which was even better than Hamlet) and The Waste Land (which changed the way I thought about everything). It felt like I was on the verge of discovering the secret of the universe.
Part 2 to follow...